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Swap, donate or recycle: what should you do with unwanted clothes?

If you're spring-cleaning your wardrobe and wondering what to do with the things you'll never wear again, Meadhbh McGrath guides you through the best options

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Think before you bin it: Up to 225,000 tonnes of clothing end up in landfill in Ireland every year

Think before you bin it: Up to 225,000 tonnes of clothing end up in landfill in Ireland every year

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With 2020 billed as the "super year" for the environment, many of us may be feeling it's time to step up our own efforts to protect the planet. Cheering on Greta Thunberg on Twitter is all very well - less so when you're also scrolling through fast-fashion sites to load up on €5 dresses.

The conversation around recycling tends to focus on the kitchen, though we should really be paying more attention to what we do with our wardrobe cast-offs. According to Oxfam, 225,000 tonnes of clothing end up in landfill in Ireland every year.

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The fashion industry is one of the world's biggest polluters, and while we may be wising up to ethical brands and the value of investment over impulse buying, we should also be considering what we do with the stuff we no longer want.

If "sustainable" was the fashion buzzword of 2019, this year's is "circular". It means clothes are never seen as waste, extending the lifespan of each item and ensuring products or materials are reused. The term refers to both the cycle of production, endorsed by brands including Stella McCartney and Gap, and the consumer practice. So, instead of tossing your unwanted items in the bin, follow our tips for a more eco-friendly means of parting with them.

REPURPOSE

Upcycling allows us to give a new lease of life to pieces we've grown tired of or that no longer fit. Before getting rid of an old item, think about how it could be reinvented with a different neckline, shorter hemline or added embellishment such as embroidery or button detailing. Many of us are guilty of buying a dress or jumpsuit for a special occasion, only for it to never see the light of day again. Consider splitting the item into separates, shortening it, or adding or removing sleeves, which can make it more versatile and more comfortable to wear. Many alterations services such as The Zip Yard, which has locations around the country, specialise in these 'restyles', and with rates usually less than €45 per project, it's likely to be a lot cheaper than buying a whole new piece.

DONATE

This is the go-to for most of us, but be mindful of what you're donating. There are plenty of horror stories from charity shop workers about the unsavoury things people hand in, so make sure your donations are clean and in good enough condition to resell. If something is a little worn, that's fine, but if it's got big holes or stains, leave it out. As well as local charity shops, you'll find clothing banks with donation points around the country, including Enable Ireland, Oxfam, NCBI, Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) and Liberty Recycling. You can search for your nearest one on the Irish Charity Shops Association's website (icsa.ie). A number of charities also pick up donations from your home, although these are mostly bulk neighbourhood collections rather than individual house calls. These include Age Action, Barnardos, Debra Ireland, Enable Ireland, the Irish Cancer Society, Liberty Recycling, NCBI, Oxfam, SVP and the Simon Community. If you're concerned about bogus collectors, check the leaflets and bags closely - according to the Charities Regulator, they must clearly display the charity's name, logo, registered charity number and contact details. You can also search the name of the charity on the charities register online (charitiesregulator.ie).

SWAP

If you've got a friend with enviable style, suggest a swap night where you can shop each other's unwanted clothes for an instant wardrobe refresh, without the expense (or the guilt). Alternatively, look for a swap shop in your area. Sustainable Fashion Dublin (instagram.com/sustainablefashiondublin) and Swap Shop Sundays (instagram.com/swap_shop_sundays/) organise events in the capital throughout the year, while in Limerick, Swap It Shop It hosts monthly swap shops at the Commercial in the city centre (instagram.com/swapit_shopit/) and Hazel O'Malley of Hazel's Nuts About Vintage runs swaps in Killarney (instagram.com/omfeventskillarney). There's also TheNuwardrobe.com, an online swap shop where you can borrow and lend as many pieces as you like, for a €6 monthly fee. On the high street, Marks and Spencer has partnered with Oxfam for its "shwopping" scheme, where customers can receive a €7 discount voucher by donating unwanted M&S-branded clothes to an Oxfam shop.

RESELL

The resale market is booming, thanks to user-friendly platforms like eBay and Depop, where you can sell your unwanted clothes from the comfort of your own smartphone. You're responsible for listing, selling and shipping items, and the sites do take a cut - Depop charges 10pc of the total transaction amount - but it still offers an opportunity to make a little extra cash on your old clothes. If your items are in good condition and have a designer or desirable high street label, you might have some luck selling through a consignment store.

Online, VestiaireCollective.com is a fashionista favourite, or there are a number of bricks-and-mortar locations around the country. In Dublin, Siopaella is among the most well-known, though it is only accepting luxury handbags at the moment, or you can try the Designer Exchange, No 38 in Ranelagh or Cobblers Wardrobe in Sandymount. Elsewhere, there's The Wardrobe in Kilkenny, Naphisa in Cork or Galway's No 8, which takes high street and designer items that can be sold on or swapped in store. You'll typically need to make an appointment or email photos of the item first to see if they are suitable for the shop, but after that they'll do most of the work for you - though expect a higher commission, generally between 20pc and 65pc.

RECYCLE

If it's the end of the line, and your clothing is so heavily soiled or damaged that there's nowhere else it can go, at least make sure you dispose of it responsibly. At home, you can cut old clothes up into rags for dusting and cleaning, or check if a local garage would use them. Otherwise, drop off clothes for textile recycling. Most charity shops will accept bags of clothes too worn to resell - just make sure they are clearly marked for recycling and that the volunteer knows they are not for the shop floor. These can then be sold to a textile recycling firm, where the contents are converted into products such as cleaning wipes or shredded into textile fibres for the construction and auto industries, among other things.

Some high street shops offer in-store recycling schemes, too. & Other Stories and H&M invite customers to bring in unwanted garments from any brand, in any condition, and Penneys will be launching their scheme later this year. However, one of the concerns with textile recycling is that only a fraction of the clothes collected - less than 10pc, according to a 2017 report by Public Radio International - are turned into fibres used to make new clothes, while the rest is "downcycled" into lower-value products such as insulation. Consider it your very last resort. And while shops tend to offer a discount voucher as an incentive to use their in-store recycling bins, ask yourself before cashing it in: Do I really need any more clothes? And do I need them to be new? While everyone is being encouraged to reuse and recycle, don't forget that ultimately, the best thing we can all do is reduce.

Irish Independent